by Evan Mantyk, Contributing Writer
It’s time for a feast! But not like one you have ever been to on Earth.
In Chinese mythology, Heaven is an actual imperial dominion—with a fully functioning bureaucracy—ruled over by the Jade Emperor and his wife, known as the Queen Mother of the West. On this special day, the Queen Mother is holding her annual Peach Banquet at the Jade Pool of the Emperor’s Golden-Gate Cloud Palace. All of the holy monks, immortals, and mighty gods and elegant goddesses of any note have been invited to this exclusive occasion—even Laozi, the forefather of Taoism and writer of the Tao Te Ching, is expected to attend!
To make this event a reality, the Queen Mother sends out invitations to the prestigious guests and summons the Seven Fairies—Red Fairy, Blue Fairy, White Fairy, Black Fairy, Purple Fairy, Yellow Fairy, and Green Fairy, to be exact—to collect peaches from her Peach Orchard. After all, what Peach Banquet would be complete without peaches, and these are no ordinary peaches: they are the Peaches of Immortality.
The Peaches of Immortality
The Peaches of Immortality grow in three varieties in the Queen Mother’s Peach Orchard and stay ripe for what seems an eternity. A Ming Dynasty poem describes them:
Blossoming fruit that stays ripe for one thousand years,
Lingering on with no summer or winter fears.
One smaller variety of the Peaches of Immortality, with tiny blossoms, allows those who eat it to feel their bodies are both light and strong. This variety is said to open up one’s mind to higher wisdom and to lengthen one’s life. These peaches blossom every 3,000 years.
A sweeter variety with multiple blossoms is rarer, blossoming only every 6,000 years. These peaches give whoever eats them the ability to fly as well as a youthful appearance.
The third variety is the most extraordinary. These Peaches of Immortality have purple streaks and their stones are a pale yellow. They ripen only every 9,000 years and whoever eats them lives eternally and enjoys a rank equal to that of the Sun and the Moon (which are actual living beings in Chinese mythology).
The Monkey King
Returning to our story, the seven colorful fairies fly away from the palace walls through the clouds and mists of Heaven, carrying their empty baskets ready to be filled with the Peaches of Immortality.
When they arrive at the Queen Mother’s Peach Orchard, there’s one problem though: the rarest peaches are missing! Someone has picked them almost clean. Now, thieves are common enough on Earth, but this is Heaven and such an act is not only outrageous but simply inconceivable. Who would do such a thing?!
It turns out that the Peach Orchard has recently been put under the supervision of the Monkey King, also known as Sun Wukong. He is a young upstart who is so powerful yet so reckless that he was disavowed by his own spiritual teacher. At this point, the Monkey King has already used his mighty strength to raise havoc in Heaven, ignoring the Jade Emperor’s commands and making ridiculous demands, including that he be referred to as “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven.” Since none of the Jade Emperor’s guards could actually stop him, the Monkey King was made supervisor of the Peach Orchard in an attempt to keep him out of trouble—too bad he has a special way of always finding it!
Before the fairies arrived, the mischievous Monkey King had his own personal Peach Banquet on the most delectable of the Peaches of Immortality, polishing off an entire section of the orchard. The Seven Fairies, aghast, are left to fly off in a frenzy to the golden palace in the distance and report the disaster to the Queen Mother. The Peach Banquet has officially been ruined!
What Does It All Mean?
The Monkey King continues to cause trouble. He sneaks into the banquet at the golden palace to steal wine, which he gets drunk on. Worse yet, he has eaten so many peaches that he has become even more powerful and invincible. What’s to be done?!
Finally, after many failed attempts by the Jade Emperor’s forces to stop the Monkey King, Buddha Shakyamuni shows up and, after the Monkey King urinates on the Buddha’s finger (that’s another story), Buddha Shakyamuni easily defeats the Monkey King and imprisons him under Five Elements Mountain for 500 years.
That’s quite a story! But it’s all only the prequal. After all those 500 years are up, the Monkey King goes on a long journey to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures. By overcoming his past selfishness and arrogance while staying strong through hardship after hardship in the human world, the Monkey King is able to redeem himself and finally reach enlightenment.
What does it all mean? Perhaps, in the end, the Peaches of Immortality represent the sweet and fulfilling state of spiritual awakening that the Monkey King, and all spiritual seekers, hope to reach. Trying to steal these peaches, as the Monkey King did, and cut corners on one’s path to enlightenment, does not work. The powerful peaches could not save him in the short term from his own errors and poor judgment. Yet his strong wish to have them and become an all-powerful divine being do lead him in the right direction. We might say that only after going through a daring and arduous journey of spiritual awakening did he finally, truly taste the Peaches of Immortality.
Inspired by this legend and the 2012 Shen Yun dance piece How the Monkey King Came to Be, the Shen Yun Shop’s Peaches of Immortality Scarf celebrates this magical and powerful fruit in its center and border, as well as featuring scenes from the legend and sumptuous peach blossoms throughout.
The above myth is adapted from the Ming Dynasty classic novel Journey to the West, by Wu Cheng’en, which is based loosely on the real monk in history Xuanzang’s journey to India to obtain Buddhist scriptures during the Tang Dynasty.